Anarkitty was rehearsing somewhere in an industrial outbuilding in Gulfport. Finding the practice space among a smattering of garages was tricky, but then:
“Hello, world, I’m your wild girl, I’m your ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!”
A muffled road map: drums, pedals, a flavor of urgent punk scream-singing emanating from a shed. The adults sat outside in a meeting. They led us to a door, swung it open and the music crashed out.
Plenty of bands have humble beginnings, but this one had been together only three weeks. They would have a total of 12 hours to practice before their biggest gig ever. If all went according to plan, they would play five songs for thousands of revelers at St. Pete Pride, opening for a raucous international music act, laying a building block of rock glory.
It seemed daunting, maybe even absurd. But then, what doesn’t feel imperiled these days? And what are young people here to do, if not things the rest of us never would dare?
On guitar, Alex Archipov, 19!
On drums, Madelyn Everist, 15!
On bass, Hannah Phillips, 17!
On vocals and keys, Mia Maze-Ingram, 15!
On vocals, Mayabella Toback, 18!
They were all former summer campers with Girls Rock St. Pete, the local branch of an international alliance. At camp, mentors teach girls and gender-expansive youth to write songs and play instruments. Moreover, they champion creativity and courage, acceptance and fierce support.
“We are not trying to crank out Taylor Swifts or even guitar shredders in one week,” said Jesse Miller, executive director of Girls Rock St. Pete. “We’re just trying to build a camp around confidence and resilience and girls seeing each other as allies instead of competition.”
St. Pete Pride organizers approached Girls Rock this year: Could a camp band open for Russian art collective Pussy Riot at Pride’s Friday concert? The band’s leader, Nadya Tolokonnikova, spent two years in Russian prison for her protest activities. Just the kind of audacity Girls Rock is all about.
There was one problem. There were no current camp bands. The program paused for two years due to COVID-19 and is just returning this summer. Organizers thought of past campers who could nail songs quickly.
When phones buzzed, the campers were working summer jobs squeezing juice, hanging at home, riding to a Bikini Kill concert (they have musical knowledge beyond their years, a side effect of camp). Most already knew who Pussy Riot was, and they were fans.
“Hey,” came the calls and texts. “Do you want to be in a band?”
Like that was a hard question.
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The morning of the show, the members of Anarkitty busied themselves to banish nerves. Hannah sewed a German dance skirt. Alex made vegan Twix and watched “Queer Eye.” Mayabella did laundry. Madelyn, an exacting drummer who dreams of band life on the road, practiced all day.
Mia’s mom, Girls Rock St. Pete treasurer Jamiel Maze, spent hours Thursday braiding rainbow pieces into Mia’s hair. Then Mia couldn’t sleep. She replayed the set in her head, dreaming she messed up lyrics to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.”
At the entrance to the St. Pete Pier, they piled into a golf cart to journey backstage. Mia issued a pageant wave, her red dress from Target flapping in the breeze.
“I feel like a celebrity,” she said.
“As you should, Mia,” said Hannah.
They huddled near the Girls Rock St. Pete table of T-shirts and stickers — merch! — and waited, peering up to an increasingly ominous sky. Mentors checked the weather radar and paced. When the first drops fell, and when the first tent blew over, and when the crew started breaking down the stage, their plans felt dubious at best.
Miller and Girls Rock St. Pete board president Rachael Sibilia have an almost psychic talent with campers, a placid tone, a way of keeping calm and positive. They weigh what they say and how they say it.
“Let’s have a little rehearsal by the water,” said Miller when the rain let up a bit.
The band shivered in the mist on the shore. A pod of dolphins jumped right in front of them. They cheered as the dolphins leapt again and again, sun breaking through the gray blanket above.
Tolokonnikova was stuck in the rain on the other side of the park. But her tour manager offered Anarkitty shelter in a spare RV. The band encircled the camper bed and sang. For a minute, everything seemed like it might work out.
A Pride organizer came in. He said they could introduce Pussy Riot but apologized. Due to a strict schedule and noise ordinance, there was no time for them to play.
They crumpled into a circle, arms laced, shoulders touching.
“What did I say?” said Sibilia. “The worst thing that came out of this was that a new band started. I love you guys.”
Here’s the thing about Girls Rock campers. I spent hours with them on multiple occasions. I never heard them utter a rude or snotty word to each other. They talked about their challenges, parents, times they got stood up or felt different at school, why Pride’s inclusion matters to them, why Pussy Riot’s demand to be heard inspires them. They listened to each other.
At camp, there’s a “Talking Good Behind Your Back” wall with Polaroid photos and brown paper bags on strings. Campers deposit compliments for each other, notes to be embossed on their memories forever. Someone wrote that Alex’s energy was “radiant.”
“I was 13,” she said.
Maybe it takes having been a teenage girl to understand, but they made my heart seize up in a little ball. Confidence and kindness, at this age, in this world, can be scarce. I wanted them to succeed because they were good to each other, because they stood up for important things, because they deserved to reap rewards. Because the world needs people like this bathed in light.
There was hope.
Pride invited Anarkitty to play the next day, after the parade, opening for indie pop trio Shaed.
Everyone was available except one band member who had concert tickets with her dad. Miller and Sibilia did not apply pressure even when it was tempting, careful to let the band decide as a unit, to lead.
By Saturday afternoon, the entire band was in.
We met back in the trailer. They passed around a scrap of fabric that had fallen off Tolokonnikova’s show outfit. They practiced, Madelyn drumming on the table, Hannah singing bass twangs. They fixed their hair and touched a tiny cat figurine.
They huddled behind stage, shoulders pressed like the day before. Tension had replaced defeat. This was actually happening.
“Are we going to have fun?” said Miller.
“Are we going to have fun more than anything?”
“One, two, three… Anarkitty!”
They played “Cherry Bomb” by the Runaways, “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Hot Topic” by Le Tigre, “Pretend We’re Dead” by L7. They closed with “Born This Way,” Mayabella and Mia walking to the edge of the stage with microphones, the crowd jumping, sitting on shoulders, singing along. They were loud and raw but didn’t let mistakes show.
Backstage, they collapsed in the grass. They picked apart their own performance in that way artists do, upset about technicalities, frustrated by things they couldn’t control. They smiled, cried, breathed, laughed, cradled each other in hugs, passed around praise.
Maybe they’d get in a few more gigs before summer’s end, before going back to college and high school, to cello lessons, to laundry, to concerts with dads, to chasing visions of making music, films and art.
For this moment, though, Anarkitty had the lawn, the wind off the bay and the rumble of music pounding into a clear sky.
The band will perform at Girls Rock St. Pete’s end of camp concert on July 23. Doors open at 5 p.m. $12 in advance, $15 at the door. Jannus Live, 200 1st Ave. N, St. Petersburg. girlsrockstpete.org.
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